BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Louis C.K. is mad.
He’s mad because the common core made his daughters hate math. He’s mad that people don’t understand the surrealism inherent in his TV show. But right now, he’s especially mad at TMZ for not taking down a video of the car crash that almost killed Tracy Morgan.
C.K. sent out a series of tweets last night urging the gossip website to remove the video, which not only contains footage of Morgan, but also of the critically injured Ardie Fuqua, and the now deceased Jimmy ‘Mack” McNair, both fellow comics. C.K.’s sentiment has been echoed by several other celebrities on Twitter, the most notable of which is probably writer/director Judd Apatow.
It’s important to mention that the first person to call for the video’s removal was actually Fuqua’s daughter, who posted the initial plea on her Instagram. Since C.K. linked to that message on his twitter account, the story has taken off.
Among the tweets C.K. released decrying TMZ, the most interesting involve him not only telling people to ask that the video be taken down, but also telling them not to watch it at all.
C.K.’s frank, simple, and impassioned words speak to several obvious truths about the culture of voyeurism that we live in. First, that TMZ and its ilk are grotesque and exploitative, and that we would all be better off without them. But more importantly, that if we want organizations like TMZ to go away, the change has to begin with us.
This is hardly the first time TMZ has been accused of less than reputable behavior. Recently, reports emerged suggesting that they blackmailed Justin Bieber over videos that showed him using the n-word for years. And an especially nasty story they ran last year involving Twilight star Ashley Greene’s apartment burning down included a video of the actress crying over the body of her dead dog.
Greene’s case is particularly emblematic of the deplorable treatment female celebrities endure from the paparazzi. Earlier this year, Lorde became the poster girl for this, when she refused to stay complacent after being stalked and intimidated by notorious celebrity photographer Simon Runting.
Even the headlines that TMZ and other gossip rags use have proven to be consistently sexist. Vagenda Magazine demonstrated this in May with a Twitter contest asking followers to replace real but outrageous headlines typical of most tabloids with honest, un-sexist fake ones. Unsurprisingly, the changes were not only far less far offensive, but by swapping out sensationalism for accuracy, they proved how thin most celebrity news really is to begin with.
But what about when TMZ catches someone doing something legitimately despicable? It’s hard to deny that badgering a 17-year-old girl or publicizing video of an incident that took a person’s life and put two other people in the hospital is inherently wrong. However, it’s not easy to feel sorry for a spoiled pop star like Justin Bieber, who despite his young age, should know better than to spurt off casual racism.
The fact is that one bad deed for another doesn’t do any good in the long run. It’s fair to say that Justin Bieber’s use of racial slurs was horrible, but that doesn’t make the implication that TMZ blackmailed a teenager for years any less horrible.
Another good example of this “nobody wins” scenario is the current Jonah Hill controversy. Hill should be sorry for his choice of words in the incident. And the very idea that a gay slur was the worst thing that he could think to call someone at that moment speaks to larger problems about homophobia and language that are still very real in America. But the photographer that brought that ugliness out of Hill by verbally assaulting him isn’t blameless either. Just because someone reacts poorly to harassment, the harassment that caused that reaction in the first place shouldn’t automatically be negated.
There’s a third party that exists in the “nobody wins” scenario. By continuing to visit websites like TMZ, by consuming the harmful content that they cash their checks off of, we are becoming part of the problem, too.
In a piece called "I'm not pimping your hate read," Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams asserted the importance of refusing to feed into TMZ’s toxic system, using Hill’s case as an example. She muses that, “I’d like to talk about an incident in which Hill was an ignorant dope but is not the only wrongdoer. But what I’d like to do even more right now is not drive traffic to the site that actually helped create this whole entire stupid episode, and is now sitting back and enjoying the page view fruits of its own whipped-up drama.”
Williams also weighed in yesterday on the Tracy Morgan crash, expounding her incredulity over how someone could even take a video of such a thing.
A few weeks ago, I was on a morning walk with my daughter when we came upon the scene of a car accident. An ambulance was already on the scene, and surrounding the periphery of the crash was an assortment of expressionless bystanders snapping away. I tried to imagine what it would feel like had it been my daughter and me in that wreck, to be helpless on a stretcher while a bunch of strangers were Instagramming our injuries. And I thought it must feel like violation. So when I consider what it must take to shoot a video of the scene of an accident and then sell it off to TMZ, I can’t help but conclude that the person who did it must be a pretty big piece of trash.
Comedian Dean Obeidallah expressed similar feelings in The Daily Beast. “Let’s not forget that there was a person who approached a horrific accident scene and whose first instinct was not, How can I help? but Let me record a video of the carnage to share with my friends," beidallah pointed out. "You have to wonder, was the person hoping to record a lot of blood and guts because his friends would've thought it was really cool? And think of the person’s excitement to discover a celebrity had been in accident: Jackpot! Forget YouTube, I can sell to this a place like TMZ and make money off this tragedy.”
What Williams and Obeidallah are speaking to here is a general desensitization that has resulted from our collective Internet use. We are inundated with so much information on a sometimes hourly basis, the problem goes beyond over-clicking; the problem is we’ve all seen so much gruesome material by now that it doesn’t even phase us. One has to wonder if the person who recorded the Tracy Morgan crash thought about what they were doing at all, much less about if it was wrong. Maybe they simply thought, “I’ve got a camera, why wouldn’t I use it? Why wouldn’t I sell the footage to TMZ? Everybody else would.”
The Internet has made us all a little more voyeuristic. We may not be the person shooting the car crash. We may not be TMZ, using the footage for our own profit. But if we’re clicking on the link to it, then we’re still culpable. It is essential for us as readers to avoid doing this. And it is even more essential for us as writers to avoid facilitating this.
It is impossible to escape the amount of dreck on the Internet entirely, but we’ll all be a lot better off if we can learn to think before we click. Louis C.K.’s rallying cry here is important, but it’s even more important that we don’t forget it once the controversy is over. TMZ is morally bankrupt, and should be ashamed of themselves.
But if we continue to visit their site knowing that, then we should be ashamed of ourselves, too.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons